Staying Body Positive While Living Abroad

Posted On May 29, 2021

One of the comments I always get from little kids in Japan is dekai meaning huge or gargantuan here in Japanese. Now I’m only 165cm tall and about 75kg on a good day which I’d say is pretty average for a Western woman, but I guess compared to the average height and weight of a Japanese woman I’m pretty big. Of course in America, I had my own issues with my body size but that was nothing a little shopping trip couldn’t cure. However, in Japan, that doesn’t seem to work anymore. I can’t pop over to the mall for a little pick-me-up shopping spree because well, I’m not the size of the average Japanese woman. Stores like H&M and Uniqlo should be a haven for those of us who can’t fit into Japan’s “free-size” clothes, and yet everything in those stores seems to run on the smaller side. 

Skinny bodies are praised globally, but Japan seems to take it to a higher level. We’re constantly bombarded with advertisements on the miracles of weight loss. There was one particular manga-style weight loss ad that began running on YouTube around the start of 2020 that caused a huge controversy among Japanese women. The ad was so offensive that university students in Akita created a petition to get it banned. 

Is it diet, genetics, or an illusion?

Japan’s diet is often thought to grant the country immunity to the obesity pandemic. The Japanese diet is traditionally healthier than the American diet with an emphasis on seafood, vegetables, and overall smaller portions. Sure there are some carb-heavy dishes like ramen, udon, and yakisoba but people don’t usually eat those daily. Many families often eat at home and for a fast food meal, a well-proportioned bento seems to be the popular choice. 

However, things aren’t always what they seem to be here in Japan, and diet culture can be extremely toxic here. Japanese women feel intense amounts of pressure to remain skinny and they often achieve their slender figures through extreme dieting. The amount of underweight women in Japan has risen steadily over the last 20 years at an alarming rate. In 2018, 19.8% of Japanese women in their 20s and 19.3% of women in their 30s were classified as underweight.

Weight control is especially concerning for pregnant women. While it’s normal for a mother to gain 10-12kg while pregnant, many women in Japan are sometimes discouraged from gaining weight and face losing access to proper medical care should weight gain become too much. Underweight women who become pregnant often birth babies with a low birth weight, which can lead to a myriad of health problems for both the mother and child. The extreme pressure to remain skinny in Japan is perpetuated throughout Japanese society in the media. Talented actor and comedian Naomi Watanabe was approached about playing the part of the “Olympig” for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  

Staying Body Positive Abroad 

Staying positive in a country that isn’t welcoming to any women over 50kg can be difficult. Before coming to Japan I wasn’t nearly as conscious of my size. But once people start pointing out how different you look it’s almost impossible not to internalize some of it. Especially now as the pandemic winds down and we start talking about losing “COVID weight” staying body positive can be difficult. After five long years of living here, I’ve come up with four tips to keep my self-esteem up: 

  1. Acknowledge your differences: Being immersed in a culture that values sameness can be a little daunting and at times you might even find yourself yearning to fit in. However all bodies are built differently, I’m not a Japanese woman and I wasn’t meant to be shaped like one. My body is beautiful just the way it is and I don’t need to change it for anyone else. 
  2. Don’t buy into diet culture: Keto diet, flat tummy tea, diet pills— diet culture is everywhere and it’s only here to take your money. Just like how each person is different, each body carries and loses weight differently. If you’re interested in losing or gaining weight it’s best to talk to a licensed physician, trainer, or nutritionist. 
  3. Keep a healthy relationship with food: A lot of us grew up with the idea that we need to restrict ourselves to certain types of food to be healthy. While some meals aren’t as “healthy” as others, what’s more, important is to focus on nutrition. Are you getting all the nutrients you need? Are you eating enough meals in the day? Creating meals that are colorful and focus on nutritional value will leave you to feel healthier and overall happier with your body.  
  4. Avoid stores that don’t carry diverse sizes: That’s easier said than done in Japan but there are some shops out there with larger sizing options. Punyus created by Naomi Watanabe is based in Japan and carries larger sizes in fun designs. International stores like ASOS and MONKI also ship to Japan and offer a variety of sizing options as well.

When you feel good about yourself you’ll carry yourself with self-confidence and self-acceptance and those together will make you beautiful. Has living abroad changed your self-confidence? Do you have any tips on staying body positive? Let us know in the comment below.

Written by Jamila Brown

Jamila Brown is a five-year resident of Japan, teaching in the day and writing at night. She enjoys movies, reading, cosplaying, and eating good food in her downtime.

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